Funeral directors battling community laws, concerns in fight to build crematoriums

Families can observe the beginning of the cremation process through a chapel window at Galzerano Funeral Home, says operator Robert Dzieniszewski.
Families can observe the beginning of the cremation process through a chapel window at Galzerano Funeral Home, says operator Robert Dzieniszewski. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 24, 2014

When funeral director Lou Galzerano entered the family business 35 years ago, cremation wasn't an option for his clients in lower Bucks County.

But he built a crematory in Bristol Township in 2009 to meet growing demand. His customers include people who want to save money and Hindus who spread their loved ones' ashes in the Ganges River.

Galzerano is now in a not-in-my-backyard-style fight to build a second crematory in Tullytown. The borough, concerned about environmental and other issues, has so far prevailed against him in the courts.

"It's just gotten busier and busier, and I need to expand," Galzerano said.

Such zoning battles been playing out across the country. And though they are more the exception than the rule, they underscore cremation's surge in popularity.

In 20 years, the nationwide rate more than doubled to 43.5 percent of all deaths in 2012, spurred in part by the recession, changing religious views, and convenience.

In 2017, 49 percent of America's dead are expected to be cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

Some worry that unless the cremation industry expands, it won't be able to handle the baby boom generation. By 2029, more than 20 percent of the population will be 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"If we don't address the capacity issue and increase the number of crematories, it could take up to two weeks to cremate someone in 2040," said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.

Some new crematories are encountering opposition. Mount Kisco, N.Y., won a battle in that state's Supreme Court in 2012 after it changed its zoning to prevent a cemetery from building a crematory. Residents were concerned about increased traffic.

Modern cremation dates to 19th-century Europe. Today, crematories are typically natural-gas-fueled machines about the size of a walk-in freezer where caskets are rolled into a chamber heated to 1,800 degrees. Computers control the temperature and emissions escape through a chimney. Leftover bone fragments are pulverized. The process takes about two hours.

The median cost for a funeral in 2012 was about $7,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Some funeral homes in Pennsylvania offer cremation, excluding any services, for about $1,500. And some now allow customers to order cremations online, sending drivers to collect bodies at hospitals and hospices and mailing the remains to relatives. But most people still request some type of service, area funeral directors said.

Patricia Lasusky, 56, of Willingboro, Burlington County, said she planned to be cremated, a break in tradition from her now-deceased parents. "It would have bothered them to be putting someone you love into an oven," she said.

Lasusky will have her ashes placed in a columbarium in a nearby Catholic cemetery, a practice that Rome didn't officially recognize in the United States until 1990. Burial is still preferred, although cremated remains can be buried or entombed with burial rites.

Cremation rates in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are below the national average at 38 percent, although parts of the suburbs, such as Bucks County, have surpassed 44 percent.

Galzerano is feeling a sense of urgency.

"I'm already at capacity where I'm at, and I'm trying to open up this new place," he said.

He proposed a stand-alone crematory in an industrial park in Tullytown. But the borough of about 2,000 people denied his application for a zoning variance, opposing it partly out of environmental concerns.

Galzerano sued. The borough countered that its zoning laws allow for crematories only when they are attached to a funeral home.

A county court sided with the borough, and, last month, Commonwealth Court did, too. Galzerano declined to discuss the case but said he was still pursuing it.

Holly Kettler, a borough councilwoman, said she was worried about air quality given that mercury dental fillings and joint replacements would undoubtedly be incinerated. (The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection regulates crematories and imposes limits on hazardous emissions.)

Besides, she said, the borough has one of the region's largest garbage dumps, which rises high above the small town.

"Tullytown takes care of enough people's waste and trash," she said. "I don't think we need to add a crematory to the list."

Mike Sellers, an attorney for Tullytown, said the borough's recent court victory elicited a couple of calls from other Pennsylvania towns concerned about proposed crematories.

"There is very little case law out there," he said.

John Erikson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, predicted the state cremation rate would peak at about 65 percent in coming decades. But he doesn't expect Pennsylvania to have a problem handling the increase.

"Even if one town says no to a crematory, another town may say yes," he said. "And that usually means driving a mile."


BY THE NUMBERS Cremation rates, in percent, as of 2012

43.5

Nation

38.1

Pennsylvania

38.2

Philadelphia

44.9

Bucks

County

44.5

Chester County

40.4

Delaware County

42.5

Montgomery County

38.3

New Jersey

44

Burlington County

39

Camden County

43

Gloucester County


bfinley@phillynews.com

610-313-8118

@Ben_Finley

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